It all adds up to a powerful case for the virtues of incremental change -- a point, Han acknowledges, that has been known to fuel disagreement between him and his erstwhile companions from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. (Han was working to set up communist China's first independent trade union in a corner of the square when the government sent in the troops.) Not long after the protests were bloodily crushed, Han was arrested and sentenced to a two-year jail term. After his 1992 release, the authorities deported him to Hong Kong, where he set up CLB.
The Party persists in refusing him the right to return home. Even so, the government in Beijing tolerates most of CLB's activities on the mainland. "Other activists tell me, ‘You should be fighting dictatorship. That should be your job,'" says Han. "But I think that we have a duty to help Chinese workers improve their lives, to make them as confident as possible."
He sketches a typical scenario: "A coal miner has just died. He left behind a wife, old parents, a kid. What do you want me to tell his wife? Go out and overthrow the [Communist Party]? Or, ‘Here are your rights vis-à-vis the employer. I'll help you get a lawyer.' So I don't argue with the Chinese government. I don't argue about my right to reform my country."
In 2007 and 2008, CLB provided legal support in 600 cases. It won 95 percent of them. In modern-day China, says Han, that is incontrovertible evidence of positive change -- as well as a sobering indication of just how badly Chinese employers abuse their workers.
It also demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are increasingly recognizing the usefulness of keeping labor disputes labor disputes, rather than allowing them to metastasize into political conflicts. Ten years ago, if workers went on strike, the Communist Party sent in the police and threw the organizers in jail. Now, the Chinese government is more likely to send in a labor mediator. "Now labor unhappiness is aimed at the boss," he argues. "Now the government is no longer the target."
CLB's website is filled with hair-raising tales of cruelty, exploitation, and injustice. But you can also find intriguing signals of change. In 2008, China's civil courts accepted 93 percent more labor disputes than in 2007, for a total of 280,000. A sample headline: "A 25 year-old university graduate with Hepatitis B has, for the first time in China, successfully sued a hospital for violating his right to privacy after it gave the results of his blood test to a prospective employer." And three months ago, a long article in the magazine Liaowang, published by none other the state-owned Xinhua news agency, explained why the country needs to guarantee collective bargaining rights.
The problem is that China's pervasive corruption is eroding people's trust in the law. Popular frustration about the issue is one of the driving forces behind the rising signs of civil unrest around China. By one estimate, there were 127,467 "mass incidents" in China in 2008. In one government poll last year, 75 percent of respondents cited corruption as the number one problem facing the country. It's easy to see how the resulting cynicism could poison the country's future.
So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.